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  • Melissa Orquiza

LA Wildfires, Harp OD’s, Jessie Reyez, Tupac & Dan Dan Noodles

Sometimes, I wonder if my day will be comprised of random, inconsequential events, shaken up like a bizarre, milkshake of crazy, under a meaningful platitude…to only highlight it’s triviality. It doesn’t happen very often, because I’d like to think I try live each day with meaning to my friends and family. (Laughter and significance. My goals each day. Oh… that and good food!)

A few weeks ago, a series of seemingly random, inconsequential decisions ended up saving my family’s life. A decision was made to record harp at the last minute on a project I was working on midway through the orchestration process. When the email was sent on a Thursday afternoon, I responded and decided to start immediately that evening, in case an emergency situation arose later. (I try to think a few steps ahead). Scores were arriving without harp, some with it, and because of the sheer volume of music with last minute changes, there had to be an accurate accounting since they would be recording in a few days, with the rest of the massive orchestra (while continuing my normal workload and who knows what else would come up.)

It started off like any ordinary evening. I picked up my daughter, cooked dinner, spent time goofing off, gave her a bath, and did her bedtime routine. Afterwards, I returned to my studio to work, as most evenings, relishing the uninterrupted solitude and focus. At around 11:30 PM, I received a text on my phone from LAFD and smelled smoke in my studio. I looked outside and saw what looked like bits of snow (?). I felt a pang of anxiety mixed with adrenaline and went upstairs to wake my husband. Exhausted, argumentative, and refusing to get up, he dismissed my concerns and went back to bed. Confused, I stared at my closet, weighing whether to listen to him or not, knowing that if I made the wrong decision, my baby could die.

I decided to “screw him” and not listen. (I normally don’t do that.)

I texted my neighbor to see if she had gotten the alert. She had already started packing. I did the same. Emergency provisions for the baby, my sleeping husband, and me for four days, family albums, and of course, my laptop, so I could still work (in case the house burned down.) I went through four exit plans in my head that 20 minutes, all while compiling the luggage at the front door, (with my cello since I can’t take a piano to play for my sanity. Calm mind = calm decisions). I went back to my studio to work on the harp, all the while trying to compromise with the wishes of my sleeping husband. At around 1:30 AM, I could see flickers of orange and ash out of my studio window. My neighbor called and said, “ Wake up Dave! Get out now. The fire is in the canyon!” I calmly went upstairs to wake my husband. Still incredulous, I told him I was leaving, picked up the baby, went downstairs, looked outside, and calmly told him the backyard was on fire.

Since the exit plans and contingency plans were fresh in my mind, I resolutely, opened the front door, unbeknownst to a tornado of white ash and inferno. It smelled like a decrepit, wood burning, fireplace. The neighbor’s house was on fire, another’s palm tree was burning like a maniacal, birthday candle spreading palm frond fire bombs, and the hillsides were towering infernos. We were flanked on three sides. I put her in her car seat, cooing and making her laugh (last thing I needed was a screaming child), closed the car door calmly, and put out embers in our front yard with my hands (idiotic for a musician, while barefoot and frantically trying to find shoes). Finally, my husband ran out with our belongings, realizing the severity of the situation. (He has since apologized, profusely. It’s a running joke. He’s good at running things. I’m good at saving our lives.) I ran back in to get the pets and we finally drove out of the neighborhood, unable to see more than a few feet in front of us, ash whirling like a snow blizzard, houses on their last gasp, glowing a frightful red- orange, the hillsides, walls of fire, beautiful, electrifying, and deathly surreal.

We were evacuated for a few days and returned to a mainly intact, albeit smoky, house with a blackened backyard. We found out later that a neighbor saw our yard on fire and spent four hours with our two hoses, saving what he could. When we first moved in, I would talk to him and his wife and just ask them how they were doing. I would ask about her eye surgery, talk about UFOS and basically laugh about life. I never thought that kindness would ever come back the way it did. Due to our location, LAFD decided to also use our house as a staging area with other fire crews, with our security cameras picking up the activity. After the fire, I realized I was exceedingly good at processing and executing emergency situations. In another life, I would have excelled at trauma or situations of warfare. My focus and acumen zeroed in like a laser and nothing wavered. (I know! Crazy concerning my friends think I’m so sweetly, wacky!) Even my emotions were non existent- just the task at hand, and I realized that focus or coldness, could have been weaponized or harnessed, for good or evil, had it been a different space or time. It kind of scared me. Maybe it was motherly instinct. Whatever it was, that laser will to survive, trumped whatever hysteria was around me and I didn’t take kindly to bullshit.

For weeks afterwards, I realize now, I was exhibiting signs of PTSD and trauma. I thought I was ok but obviously I hadn’t fully processed the event. It would manifest in a couple of different ways. For example, I preferred to work late into the night, just in case another fire broke out. I’d sleep during the day, with an alarm, in case work came in, because the ability to evacuate quickly was easier during the day. When the high winds would blow and I’d see the trees sway, I’d flashback to the night of the fire and would be unable to sleep. Sometimes, people would ask me or text me about the fire and responding to their well intentioned messages would inadvertently force me to relive the escape over and over again. Instead of crying (like most normal girls), I’d get nauseous with migraines, and start to shake. (Hilarious now, because when I was younger, I’d cry when I couldn’t figure out my gear.) But like every traumatic event in my life, I did what I always did to escape or process, I turned to music.

A few weeks earlier, I had lunch with a friend and we were talking about (again) seemingly random things about life. She brought up Filipino History Month for October (wildfire season!) and came up with the idea of doing an all female string quartet to play for the Mayor’s reception and outlying events. I loved the idea because it 1) promoted our musical culture and 2) all girl filipina string quartets aren’t really a thing and hell yeah!

About a week after we moved back in, while firefighters were still going into our yard, while demolition crews were trying to salvage our burned areas, and our poor trees were burned from the ancillary heat in the canyon, I started preparing for the reception and performances to showcase the culture. It helped me recover. Combined with the multiple projects from work, music helped me regain myself. My heart no longer races when the wind blows (fanning imaginary flames across the canyon). My hands no longer shake when I think of that night. I no longer panic when darkness falls. I can sleep at night. I no longer have anxiety when I have to learn new music. (Obviously, a overcompensatory manifestation of the “fight or flight” response from the fire.) And, I no longer practice multiple evacuation contingencies in my head for a disaster response.

Maybe it was the laser like focus musicians need to have to keep practicing the same passage over and over again that saved our lives. Maybe it was the hours laughing with my neighbors over wacky things that made them call us and helped save our lives. Maybe it was asking about their day that made them run over and save our house. Maybe it was the decision to work late on harp overdubs that saved our lives. Who the heck knows? I do know this. Our decisions are not inconsequential. Good, truthful, decisions can reverberate like a karmic echo chamber, transforming the seemingly banal into beauty, honesty, grace, and transcendent hope. That laugh you shared with someone could save a life.

And, a good beat always chases away the blues. Dancing, next to playing music, is my kind of high. LA, I hated you for years when I first moved here, but, I realize now, your beauty is in the soul of its people. Cheers!

Jessie Reyez, “Far Away”

Tupac feat Dr.Dre - "California Love"

Ooh! Check out this Dan Dan Noodle recipe. Our first meal back in the house after the fire. (I wanted to make lasagna that night, but that’ll be for a future post!)

Dan Dan Noodles

from “Chinese Food Made Easy” by Ching- He Huang (She’s British so please excuse the conversions.)

Serves 4


2 Tablespoons groundnut oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed and finely chopped

1 Tablespoon freshly grated ginger root

1 medium red chili, deseeded and finely chopped

250g/9 oz turkey or ground chicken (It’s approximately a pound. Recipe originally calls for beef but I prefer ground chicken.)

1 Tablespoon Shaohsing rice wine or dry sherry

100g/ 31/2 oz cornichons or cocktail gherkins in vinegar, drained and finely diced

1 Tablespoon soy sauce


500 g/1lb 2oz any wheat flour noodles

toasted sesame oil

1 Tablespoon sesame paste or tahini, blended with 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1 Tablespoon chili oil

1 Tablespoon Chinkiang black rice vinegar or balsamic vinegar

750 ml/ 1 1/4 pints chicken stock


1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns

1 large spring onion, finely chopped

1 small handful of fresh coriander or cilantro leaves finely chopped

1 teaspoon chili oil

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1. Cook the noodles according to the packet instruction, drain and took them through with some sesame oil. Put to one side. (To save time, throw in some bok choy while the noodles cook and drain it all together and you’ve got your bright green vegetable.)

2. To make the meat topping, heat a wok over a high heat and add the groundnut oil. Add the garlic, ginger and chili and stir-fry for a few seconds, then add the minced turkey or chicken. As it starts to turn brown, add the rice wine or sherry and cook for a few seconds. Stir in the cornichons or gherkins and cook until fragrant, then season with the soy sauce and keep on a very low heat. (Perfect time to open a bottle of red wine or kombucha. As much as I LOVE bourbon, don’t drink bourbon with this.)

3. Next, make the noodle sauce. Put the sesame paste or blended tahini, the chili oil and vinegar into a small wok or pan, add the stock and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to low. (Watch closely when you add the black vinegar. It’ll spit and bubble and make sure the tahini doesn’t burn.)

4. Put the Sichuan peppercorns for the garnish into a small pan and dry roast until fragrant, then remove from the heat and crush in a pestle and mortar or place in a plastic bag and bash with a rolling pin. (Quite soothing after a frustrating day!)

5. To serve, either divide the noodles between four bowls or leave in the wok, then ladle on the sauce and top with the stir-fry. Garnish with the Sichuan peppercorns, spring onion and cilantro. Drizzle chili oil over the dish, add a drizzle of sesame oil to taste around the edge of the sauce and serve immediately, with extra chili oil, if you like. (Now go Netflix it and chill.)

Thanks for reading! Enjoy!

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